[ eth-iks ]
/ ˈɛθ ɪks /
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(used with a singular or plural verb) a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture.
(used with a plural verb) the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.: medical ethics; Christian ethics.
(used with a plural verb) moral principles, as of an individual: His ethics forbade betrayal of a confidence.
(used with a singular verb) that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.Compare axiological ethics, deontological ethics.
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Origin of ethics

First recorded in 1400–50; late Middle English ethic + -s3, modeled on Greek tà ēthiká, neuter plural

synonym study for ethics

2. See moral.
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What are ethics?

Ethics are a system of moral principles or rules that say what is and is not acceptable.

Generally speaking, ethics refer to the rules or code of conduct that people use to determine when an action is acceptable or not. Often, a person’s ethics are based on the rules of their society, such as laws or religious teachings. A society’s ethics might say that it is wrong to steal from someone else, for example.

You may have your own ethics that are different from the society or community you live in. For example, you may move from a country where owning a gun is legal to one where it is not. In this case, your personal ethics (your belief that owning a gun is okay) may contradict the ethics of the country you now live in.

In philosophy, the word ethics is used to mean the study of what makes a person decide what is right and wrong. Philosophers often use the word morality to mean the same thing.

Outside of philosophy, though, we consider ethics and morals to be two different sets of values. Generally speaking, the difference between the two is that ethics are what a community considers to be right and wrong, and morals are what an individual considers to be good and bad or evil.

Why is ethics important?

The first records of the term ethics come from around 1400. It ultimately comes from the Greek éthikos, which combines the word êthos, meaning “custom,” and –ikos, which forms adjectives. The ethics of many societies are often determined by their customs.

It is understandable if you are still confused by the difference between ethics and morals. The two concepts are often closely interconnected, and ethics are often motivated by the morals that a large number of people have. Many laws, seen as the ethics of society, forbid things that people consider to be a serious violation of morals, such as killing another person.

However, people can have different morals and ethics from each other or their society. For example, the law might allow a farmer to do whatever he wants to the animals he owns. So, a farmer might decide to kill most of his male chicks because he only wants female chickens to lay eggs that he can sell. The farmer is both not violating the ethics of the society he is a part of and he is not violating his own ethics or morals because he personally believes there is nothing wrong about culling male chicks. But many animal rights activists would declare that this practice is morally wrong. You’ll find that people often passionately debate about what should and should not be considered acceptable according to ethics.

Did you know … ?

Sometimes, the ethics of a profession are in conflict with the ethics of society. Journalists will often protect the identity of their sources even under threat of being sent to prison because they refuse to violate the ethics of journalism.

What are real-life examples of ethics?

To help you out, we have a video explaining the difference between ethics and morals:

What’s The Difference Between “Morals” vs. “Ethics”?

The word ethics is often used in instances where a person or even a whole society had an ethical dilemma or violated ethics.

What other words are related to ethics?

Quiz yourself!

True or False?

Ethics are the rules that define what is right and wrong.

How to use ethics in a sentence

British Dictionary definitions for ethics

/ (ˈɛθɪks) /

(functioning as singular) the philosophical study of the moral value of human conduct and of the rules and principles that ought to govern it; moral philosophySee also meta-ethics
(functioning as plural) a social, religious, or civil code of behaviour considered correct, esp that of a particular group, profession, or individual
(functioning as plural) the moral fitness of a decision, course of action, etche doubted the ethics of their verdict

Derived forms of ethics

ethicist, noun
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Cultural definitions for ethics


The branch of philosophy that deals with morality. Ethics is concerned with distinguishing between good and evil in the world, between right and wrong human actions, and between virtuous and nonvirtuous characteristics of people.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.